Facebook expands new tool aiming to shrink ‘news deserts’

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Facebook is trying to coax “news deserts” into bloom with the second major expansion of a tool that exposes people to more local news and information. But the social network confesses that it still has a lot to learn.

The social media giant said Thursday it is expanding its “Today In” service to 6,000 cities and towns across the U.S., up from 400 before.

Launched in early 2018, the service lets Facebook users opt into local information, including news articles, missing-person alerts, local election results, road closures, and crime reports. Facebook aggregates posts from the official Facebook pages for news organizations, schools, government agencies and community groups like dog shelters.

The mobile-only tool lives within the Facebook app; turning it on adds local updates to a user’s regular news feed. In areas with scant local news, Facebook will add relevant articles from surrounding areas.

Some 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States over the past 15 years, according to research from the University of North Carolina. Newsroom employment has declined by 45% as the industry struggles with a broken business model partly caused by the success of companies on the internet, including Facebook.

Campbell Brown, head of global news partnerships at Facebook, said Facebook has a responsibility to support journalism, while also noting that the media industry has been in decline “for a very long time.” Brown, a former news anchor, and host at NBC and CNN, said local reporting remains the most important form of journalism today.

“There is no silver bullet,” Brown said in an interview. “We really want to help publishers address challenges in local markets.”

Warren St. John, CEO of hyperlocal news service Patch, said the service means potential new readers because it goes to people who haven’t necessarily liked a Patch Facebook page.

“Facebook has taken its lumps, perhaps rightly so over the last couple of years, but I think what they have done around local news is pretty unique,” he said. This includes grants and accelerator programs for local news organizations, “passing the expertise and knowledge of a Silicon Valley tech firm down to the local publisher ecosystem.”